Roe's Pro-Life Legacy

By Shields, Jon A. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2013 | Go to article overview
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Roe's Pro-Life Legacy


Shields, Jon A., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Roe v. Wade did far more than create a constitutional right to abortion--it crippled the pro-choice and energized the pro-life movement, creating one of the largest campaigns of moral suasion in American history. Even while nationalizing abortion politics, the Supreme Court's decision also localized and personalized the issue by pushing it almost entirely out of legislatures, giving an unexpected opening to the pro-life movement to affect the culture, and in turn the wider political debate, in ways no one expected.

Before Roe, the pro-choice movement was truly a movement: It organized letter-writing campaigns, subverted restrictive abortion laws through underground networks of clergy and doctors, and eagerly sought opportunities to debate pro-life advocates. After Roe, obviated by its near-total victory, the movement almost collapsed. It has never fully recovered its former strength and energy.

Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who famously argued Roe itself, confessed that she "missed the energy of our pre-Roe crusade." After Roe, "our energy and contributions sagged and we seemed only to plod forward. ... When we talked about the importance of organizing and pro-choice voting, people tended to think, 'Now, really, I'm so busy. And after all, Roe versus Wade decided the matter.'"

When Roe was threatened in the late 1980s, the pro-choice movement did rebound modestly, as it has done occasionally since in response to nominations of conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Yet these sporadic legal battles and confirmation struggles never demanded anything like the sustained, grassroots mobilization that characterized the pre-Roe campaign. In a few instances, pro-choice citizens did participate in large national marches, but such protests primarily offered a reminder to the nation--and prolife opponents--that the movement could flex a bit of muscle, if it ever actually needed to do so.

The pro-choice campaign is now a largely conservative one defending the status quo. Pro-choice activists have become so cautious and conservative that they are often reluctant even simply to debate right-to-lifers. The Pro-Choice Action Network has said: "Along with most other pro-choice groups, we do not engage in debates with the anti-choice." The movement was never so reluctant in the pre-Roe years, when it was desperate to change public opinion and revolutionize abortion policy.

While Roe bred apathy and conservatism in pro-choice ranks, it energized many pro-lifers. With the Supreme Court having removed abortion from the political process and deprived pro-lifers of normal avenues of political influence, some decided to blockade abortion clinics instead. Between 1977 and 1993, pro-life radicals orchestrated some six hundred blockades, leading to more than 33,000 arrests.

Most pro-life activists, however, dedicated their lives to changing the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens, rather than simply obstructing them from procuring abortions. The more Americans who opposed abortion on moral grounds or were offered practical alternatives to abortion, such activists reasoned, the fewer abortions, whatever the laws of the land. These pro-life advocates quietly began countless conversations with ordinary citizens and continue to do so in great numbers.

Some target college students. Groups such as Justice for All and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform have reached students at more than one hundred college campuses across the country. Campus activists use large graphic images of aborted embryos and fetuses to provoke philosophical discussions over the moral status of the embryo.

They further draw on well-honed arguments developed by pro-life intellectuals, such as Robert George and Patrick Lee. In this way, the divide between the academy and Christian activists is not always as large as elites on both sides of the culture wars assume.

I observed many such conversations at a Justice For All outreach event at the University of Colorado at Denver.

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